Examining Addiction in the LGBTQ+ Community

Addressing causes, effects and obstacles to treatment for addiction in the LGBTQ+ Community

As we continue to celebrate Pride Month, Recovery Unplugged wants to take a moment to examine some of the origins, sustaining factors and ramifications related to addiction in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as some of the obstacles that prevent effective treatment. Our organization remains deeply committed to providing a safe, supportive and inclusive care program for this population, and this begins with cultivating an understanding of how substance abuse manifests and persists among its members. Our LGBTQ+ clients come to us with a unique and distinct set of issues that requires intuitive and compassionate care, both in a clinical and environmental context.

Let’s Start with Some Numbers

The rates of addiction in the LGBTQ+ continue to eclipse those who identify as cisgender and heterosexual. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that those who identify in the “sexual minority” are twice as likely to exhibit past-year drug use. Other research from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor indicates that LGBTQ+ persons also have a greater likelihood than non-LGBTQ+ persons of experiencing a substance use disorder (SUD) in their lifetime, and they often enter treatment with more severe SUDs. A joint study from Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota indicated that sexual minorities with SUDs are more likely to have additional (comorbid or co-occurring) psychiatric disorders.

What’s Driving Addiction in the LGBTQ+ Community?

Even as the LGBTQ+ population makes increasing inroads toward equality and inclusion, it still continues to face macro and everyday discrimination, marginalization and harassment in multiple areas of life, from the workplace to the family unit and everything in between. The Human Rights Council reports LGBTQ+ teens may be two times as likely to be bullied, excluded or assaulted at school. On top of that, they’re nearly 40 percent less likely to have an adult in their family to whom they can turn. This lack of support and constant vulnerability to harassment very often spills over into adult life, as does the inclination toward escapism through self-medication with alcohol and other drugs. This multi-level implicit societal bias, fear for safety, identity-related family shame and many other factors have very real behavioral health ramifications, including depression, anxiety and even PTSD.

Obstacles to Quality Treatment

Although risk of addiction in the LGBTQ community is much higher, many affected members of the population often find themselves unable to access quality care. SAMHSA reports that 50 percent of LGBTQ+ people admitted to having difficulties seeking health coverage while 75 percent revealed that they faced discrimination in the process. Even when they are able to navigate the healthcare landscape to find treatment, many programs are ill-equipped to offer the kind of therapy and environment needed for those in the LGBTQ+ community to thrive in treatment and recovery. At the same time, multiple studies, including those from the Lehman College, the University of the Montana and many others indicate that treatment programs offering specialized groups for gay and bisexual men showed better outcomes for those clients compared to gay and bisexual men in non-specialized programs.

Going Forward: Effectively Treating Addiction In the LGBTQ Community

In addition to intuitive and experienced psychiatric therapy and increased access to medical resources that allow them to deal with the biological ramifications of their substance use, LGBTQ+ clients need a safe, inclusive and supportive environment, free of judgment. So much of the clinical care experience is based on trust and, very often, LGBTQ+ clients find themselves discouraged from getting help.

Some of the most immediate ways to mitigate these concerns include installation of gender-neutral restrooms, offering non-12-Step programs, providing specific group therapy tracks for LGBTQ+ clients, supportive housing during residential treatment, and other resources that signal inclusion and a willingness to break gender and heteronormative barriers. Addiction rehab can be a tense enough experience without added layers of complication related to sexual identity; when clients feel safe, respected and included, they’re much more apt to respond to their clinical treatment.